WHITE PALMS (Szabolcs Hajdu, 2006)

As a kid I loved sports movies—for instance, The Bob Mathias Story (Francis D. Lyon, 1954), which I used to watch over and over again. (Bob Mathias played Bob Mathias.) But one has to admit that no other genre has gathered up so many instances of utter trash. Writer-director Szabolcs Hajdu’s Fehér tenyér has Hadju’s brother, star gymnast Zoltán Miklós Hajdu, playing a version of himself, here called Dongo, with Canada’s Kyle Shewfelt, whom the Hungarian gymnast helped train, also playing a version of himself. Yet there isn’t a single clear, sensible, believable, interesting or compelling element to this haphazardly edited mishmash of multiple story-lines, one of which involves Dongo’s boyhood stint in a circus, where his mishandled double-twist in the air lands him with a thud on the ground. We are left to wonder how the boy survived—or why he should prostitute his gifts by ending up in Vegas in the Cirque du Soleil.
     The cruelty of Dongo’s childhood gymnastic training is protracted to the point that it becomes cruelty inflicted on us, the viewer. Filmmaker Hajdu is a Spielberg-level sadist, an unconscionably vicious personality who savors each flick of the foil that the boys’ gymnastic coach inflicts on bare flesh for such trivial infractions as permitting a quivering toe to venture beyond a hard line on the gymnasium floor. This coach is not above punishing a boy who has done little or nothing wrong in front of the girls, who are otherwise separated from the boys by a curtain. Some reviewers, perhaps after viewing the film up their propagandizing political asses, have concluded that the coach reflects the meanness of the Communist state. Huh? Time and time again we see the coach change his tune on a dime, feigning kindness toward his pupils, whenever an official or any adult eye falls upon him. Rather, I would say he represents the decadence of the Communist state, the point at which its form, reflected in the coach’s practice, is no longer attached to any suasive or ideological foundation. But one may well blame the filmmaker over the inexact reviewer, because Hajdu’s own meanness blots out meaning.
     His parents won’t believe Dongo when he tells them that he was whipped by the coach for doing nothing really wrong; but somewhat conveniently he makes little effort to contest their disbelief. He says instead he threw a knife at the girls, whereupon, one would think, a parent would ask, “In class, however did you get hold of a knife?” If it is Hajdu’s intent that we should conclude that Dongo’s parents, through the long practice of ceding to an authoritarian state, accept the correctness of authority even above their concern for their son, he ridiculously fails, in part because he contrasts this situation with the equally ridiculous one in Calgary, where parents are up in arms, demanding that the police be called, when the grown Dongo, now a coach himself, administers a single light slap to Kyle, whose behavior is incorrigible. While Hajdu is busy congratulating himself for exposing the shortcomings of both Eastern Europe and North America on this point of child-control, we the people are sickest of all with him for so callously disregarding our sensibilities by manipulating us on both fronts. Hajdu isn’t a filmmaker; he is a one-man horror show.

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